One of the best parts of quitting my job to be a stay-at-home dad is that I now have time to read for pleasure. As an English teacher, I’d get to read plenty, but it was always student papers. Not that those weren’t awesome. Some were. But it was a job. Now, though, I get to put that English degree to another use and plow through as many books as I like.
My goal for this year was to read a book a week. I didn’t quite get there, but I still found time to knock out 47 books. Now, deep into December, I’m looking back over the year that was in books. I’ve concocted a couple of categories here and attempted to explain myself, all with the goal of providing you, the reader, a list of the Best Books of 2017.
There’s still plenty of great books out there that I didn’t get around to (they’re listed below as well), but I read enough that I feel confident in my selections below.
Most importantly, remember that, to paraphrase the great Mark Twain, the person who does not read books has no advantage over the person who cannot read them.
We’re talking Books here, with a capital “B.” These are books up for awards, and books that, in all likelihood will survive the short attention span culture and permeate reading lists for years to come. With beautiful prose and themes that inspire and provoke thought, these books are the best that the publishing world has to offer. As with most years, the difference between the top two or three books of the year is very small. In the end, I tried to pick the book that I felt was most flawless.
1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Compulsively readable literary fiction is hard to come by. Even harder? Making something so complex, with its themes of identity, motherhood, wealth, and art, so very enjoyable. I cherished every minute of this book, as it navigates the waters of character study and mystery deftly. Following multiple families in the seemingly idyllic suburb of Shaker Heights, this book examines what suburban perfection means for different people. Characters are written without judgement but with great empathy. This is the rare book that you can blaze through in a matter of days and also recommend to the most literary of friends. That is why it’s my book of the year.
2. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
This year’s National Book Award winner is very good indeed. Better, in my opinion, than last year’s winner The Underground Railroad. Parts of this novel (the family dynamics) work better than others (the supernatural) for me, but Ward’s talent is undeniable. If you’re at all a Toni Morrison fan, you’d do well by yourself to read this stunning work of trauma and literal and figurative ghosts.
3. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
What would have happened if Huck Finn never escaped from his insane drunken father in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Probably what happens to the 14-year-old Turtle Alveston in this book. Not a retelling of Huck Finn in any way, it is, nonetheless, similar in conveying the complex relationship of an adolescent to their controlling psychopathic father. Martin, the father, tries to prepare his daughter for the evils of the world, offering such gems as this:
“It’s not your spread, and it’s not how strong you are, and it’s not how fast you are, because you have all those things, and you think that means something. That means nothing. It’s something else, kibble, it’s your heart. When you are afraid, you clutch at your life like a scared little girl, and you can’t do that, you will die, and you will die afraid with shit running down your legs.”
Once Turtle meets two boys, though, she begins to question her home life and if her father is truly looking out for her best interests. This is not an easy book to read and it’ll stay with you for awhile, but you’ll be the better for it.
Best Mystery/Thriller/Crime Novel:
For pure escapism, it’s hard to beat a good crime novel. Maybe someone’s missing. Maybe there’s been a murder. Maybe there’s a anti-hero cop that is just so damn likable. These books have all that and more. Pick one of these books and get ready to read deep into the night.
1. The Force by Don Winslow
The Force wasn’t just the best crime novel of this year. It may be the best crime novel of all time. Following the story of Denny Malone, the leader of the Manhattan North Special Task Force (or “Da Force,” for short). Malone is a throwback anti-hero, walking the line between doing good for himself and doing good for the greater good. Eventually, his life unravels and flails against the epic scope of the novel. It’s a beautiful destruction and as good of a book as was published all year. It could easily be listed with the group above.
2. Unsub by Meg Gardiner
This chilling depiction of a serial killer that haunts a detective and then his daughter twenty years later is extremely well done. I was left guessing pretty much the entire book, as Gardiner crafts a Zodiac-esque story. It would make a great companion for fans of Netflix’s Mindhunter.
3. Blame by Jeff Abbott
This was my first time reading Jeff Abbott, and I was really impressed with the quality of his storytelling. Using an amnesiac as the unreliable narrator could have gone so very wrong, but it never felt like a cliche here. That’s a testament to Abbott’s writing.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I don’t read as much nonfiction as I probably should, but this book sucked me in with its true crime tale. It’s much more than that, though, as Marzano-Lesnevich weaves her own personal backstory throughout the narrative. As a young law student opposed to the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich began reviewing the case of a murdered and sexually assaulted six-year-old boy. A strong visceral reaction came over her, wanting the murderer to die. She then peels back the layers of her own childhood, only to reveal some truly terrifying information that will shake the reader to their very core.
My Favorite Book of 2017
Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
Nickolas Butler crafted something rare with Hearts of Men: A book that made me weep. Although maybe not the best book that I read this year, Hearts of Men was, hands down, my favorite read of 2017. Following one Nelson Doughty over the course of three separate periods in his life, this book is a sweeping look at manhood, friendships, and redemption. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s that good. Bonus suggestion: Go pick up Butler’s first novel Shotgun Lovesongs. It’s another fantastic read from this Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate.
Biggest Letdown Book
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
On the surface, I should have loved this book. As soon as I read a preview of it, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Then, I read it. And I kind of hated it. Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler through the season at his North Dakota school. As a former college wrestler myself, this sounded right up my alley. It was just too strange for me. Isolated from everything but his own thoughts, Stephen begins a single-minded pursuit towards his wrestling goal. In doing so, though, he basically loses his mind. While that can, at times, be interesting, it created a truly strange reading experience that I cannot, in good faith, recommend.
Best Beach Read:
Camino Island by John Grisham
First of all, this book literally takes place on a beach. Second, it’s really damn good. I haven’t read Grisham for years, and this one is a hard departure from the world of courtrooms and lawyers. Instead, we get something really fun. Someone’s stolen millions of dollars worth of F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from Princeton University, and no one knows where they are. Well, a few people do. But who? The fun is in trying to figure that out, as secrets abound off the coast of Florida.
Best Conclusion to a Series:
Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles
In 2014, Greg Iles published Natchez Burning, the first book in his thrilling trilogy of love and race in the American South. The twists and turns of that conspiracy laden narrative were propulsive and, simply put, fantastic. He followed that with The Bone Tree, a continuation of the Penn Cage-Double Eagle story that he had so expertly crafted. This year finally brought the conclusion to that story in Mississippi Blood. In total, the trilogy spans 2300 pages but don’t let that scare you off. It’s a vital collection of American fiction, expertly told with some of the best courtroom scenes every put in writing. A fitting end to a phenomenal reading experience.
Books Still on My Nightstand:
These are the books that I wish I could have read this year and, sadly, just simply didn’t get around to. I’m sure they’re great and probably could have found their way onto one of these lists. They’re up next on my “to-read” list.
Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
The Locals by Jonathan Dee
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Sting-Ray Afternoons by Steven Rushin